My June “Best of Health” article for Our Dogs

Best of HealthA 5-point plan for improving canine health and welfare

The BSAVA Congress held in April covered a huge range of clinically and practically relevant lectures delivered by world-renowned speakers, all tailored to the small animal veterinary profession. So, one of the presentations that stood out as being a little bit different was Philippa Robinson’s talk entitled “Dog health and welfare – the demand side of the equation”.

I’ve heard Philippa talk about this on many occasions, but it’s a topic that could have been quite challenging for an audience of veterinary surgeons. They are a group that feels they should be able to offer good advice to potential puppy buyers and, indeed, the APGAW “strategy for dogs” published earlier this year recommended vets should be consulted by buyers as a source of information on DNA testing and hereditary diseases. (They have a big hill to climb if my experience of vets’ awareness of DNA testing is anything to go by!)

Philippa’s angle for her presentation was the importance of understanding people’s behaviour and attitudes which she said were inextricably linked to dog health and welfare problems. She said “Of course the veterinary science is essential to help us improve dog health, but understanding people also has a contribution to make to the debates and actions.

When people raise the issue of dog health and welfare controversies they very often summarise its recent history  as follows: 2008 PDE, then three reports on pedigree dog health including the Bateson inquiry, and then the Dog Advisory Council being set up. Now, because of Philippa’s personal experience of poor dog health culminating in the early loss of her GWP in 2006 with epilepsy, she was very keen to join the PDE campaign in 2007 and very supportive of the documentary. She continued to support its arguments after broadcast.

A timeline for dog health and welfare

Just after the Bateson report came out she began a piece of work that she thought would once and for all prove just how inert the KC had been on dog health. She started to work on a timeline of pedigree dog health and welfare. Really quickly into embarking on that piece of work (really quickly: within a couple of hours or working on that history) the anti-KC rhetoric began to loosen its grip on her. Here’s why – an historical analysis of pedigree dog health reveals that the issues are far more complex than argued in either PDE or any of the three subsequent reports.

Her Dog Health timeline now goes from 1854 to the present day. It has become a massive spreadsheet outlining the milestones from many of the relevant stakeholders and players. What does the timeline show? Well, yes, it reveals the long history of the KC. But it does not reveal that the KC was inert. In fact it reveals that along the way there have been many fascinating initiatives relating to health and welfare, including some collaborative work with other parties. If you read through the Kennel Gazette of the late 80s for instance, you will see reports on some really interesting work on issues such as puppy farming, inherited disease, educating the public etc. Once you learn that the KC was driving initiatives like this your questions begin to change.

It is no longer a question of why has the KC done nothing on health? But more a question of what happened to this type of work? Where did those initiatives take us? What were the outcomes of those projects?

Philippa advocates we use a systems thinking approach to dog health and welfare because it is a fantastic tool that enables us to understand complexity, understand trends, and identify the most fruitful interventions. It is an approach widely used in the realm of human health; it is an approach used in other complex areas, for instance, last year it featured in Professor Elliot’s analysis of the horsemeat scandal. She believes that we are failing to use this approach in dog welfare and that is to the detriment of dogs.

We need to see supply and demand for dogs as a “system”

As an example, Philippa presented a simplified systems map [see diagram] of the supply and demand for dogs. On the right is the supply of dogs, and that supply comes from a range of sources. From breeders; some good, some bad, some high welfare, some not. Dogs are also supplied through the rescues and rehoming centres; dogs are also supplied through importation, both legal and illegal.

On the left is demand. Demand comes from people with a variety of motives, with different levels of understanding and sadly with different levels of commitment and sense of duty in the care of those dogs.

Dog system

This type of mapping can be applied at the level of individual breeds, rather than just dogs in general. This is a very important distinction to make when talking about the health and welfare of dogs because, as the KC registration statistics shows us, we are a nation of “dog breed lovers” not “dog lovers”. The consequence of that is that there are different issues to tackle within individual breeds. The challenges facing French Bulldogs are quite different to those facing Neapolitan Mastiffs and attempts to come up with a one size fits all solution is doomed to fail. [Take note: Dangerous Dogs Act, Dog Licensing, Microchipping, Ban Dog Showing etc. etc.]

Dog breeds are the result of being “shaped by human preferences”. Not the KC, not the show world, not the elite breeders, but “human preference” in general. The KC, the show world, elite breeders, have all played a part in the shaping of these dogs and dog breeds, for sure, but other influences have also played their part. And, if you focus only on the KC or the show world, without considering the influences coming from other elements of the system, then we will never find effective solutions to our dog welfare issues. What is more, to be fixated by only the KC, or only the show world, is not just an oversimplification of the issues, it is a dangerous oversimplification, because we may well be looking in entirely the wrong place for our solutions.

Celebrity endorsement: the curse of breed popularity?

There has been so much publicity from PDE, online blogs, articles in the papers, articles in scientific journals, the RSPCA’s own Born to Suffer campaign, so much publicity highlighting the controversies surrounding the health of brachycephalics yet as the registration figures attest, that has had no impact on their popularity. The popularity of French Bulldogs, to take just one example, has exploded. Either that is because the health messages are still not getting across, or the health messages are not believed, or because what motivates and drives people to choose a Frenchie has nothing whatsoever to do with these health controversies.

It is a breed that features regularly with its celebrity owners:

  • Lewis Hamilton and Rosco
  • Jonathan Ross and his 3 frenchies
  • Coco Beckham
  • Asia GaGa
  • Jackson owned by Jessie J
  • Coco owned by Robbie Savage
  • Dali owned by Hugh Jackman

Those celebrities do not just own those French Bulldogs, they also feature them regularly in their social media timelines; almost daily in some cases (Lady Gaga with 45 million Twitter followers and 61 million Facebook Likes). The messages are all about how cute these dogs are, how funny, how amenable, how loving etc. There is no doubt that, in the case of the French Bulldog, it has clearly become a cultural, societal, phenomenon.

It has been used to sell all sorts of merchandise, services and of course is the current breed of choice for many a celebrity. This breed endorsement has not come from the KC, the show world or the breed club. Even combined, the KC, the show world, the breed club have precious few resources to counter that iconic status. They also have limited spheres of influence to change behaviours and attitudes amongst the wider population. So where, given its status as a cultural phenomenon, can we best intervene in the system to enable us to help improve the health and welfare issues relating to the breed?

  • Review the breed standards?
  • Introduce judicious health testing?
  • Remove untested dogs from the breeding programme?
  • Remove affected dogs from the breeding programme?
  • Remove untested dogs from dog showing?
  • Remove untested dogs from the KC system altogether?
  • Ensure that the public are armed with the facts?
  • Issue breeds with “health warnings” like cigarettes?

We could do any or all of the suggestions on this list. Many of these suggestions are frequently raised by anti-pedigree campaigners as things that SHOULD be being done. Each, or even all, may have merit. However, a systems thinking approach ensures that the bigger picture is considered to analyse the trends and identify the points of intervention that will really make a difference to the welfare of the breed.

Already, much work is being done by the Breed Club and KC, but the map reveals that all that work is focused only on one small part of the system. Most French Bulldogs may not be in the KC part of the system, many come from low welfare breeders who do not participate in any of the health schemes. Many French Bulldogs are imported, most often illegally, to fulfil the demand created through the celebrity culture. Most critics of French Bulldogs and brachycephalic breeds do not acknowledge that the KC and show world only represents a proportion of the dog system.

Philippa ended with a 5 point plan that would require the vet profession, the welfare charities, the scientists, academia, breeders, local authorities, the KC, the welfare campaigners, APGAW, industry and the dog loving public to work together:

  1. Clarify what the health and welfare messages need to be for each breed/type of dog, based on evidence and good data
  2. Really understand the dynamics of the system that supplies dogs and puppies – again mindful of breed/type
  3. Really understand the human behaviour that determines our dog buying/acquiring decisions
  4. Simplify the key messages derived from numbers 1 and 2 to help us shape number 3
  5. Deliver those key messages consistently across the board – messages to be delivered by ALL parts of the system

Clearly, we all have a role to play in improving the health of our breeds and we need to ensure our good work is well communicated. But, we also need to ensure we have the data and evidence to explain the bigger picture, even if that’s not a message our critics are likely to want to hear!

You can see Philippa’s slides here: and I am grateful to her for permission to use her presentation notes as the basis for this article.


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